Since miracles don't really happen, it's not technically correct to call this one, but the details appear to be so, well, miraculous that it seems churlish to quibble over definitions.
John Deeks, an architectural technician from London, appeared to be "clininically dead" for about an hour, then came back to life. While swimming near his mother's house off the Cape Town coast in South Africa the 35-year-old came close to drowning and was rescued after he was seen floating face down in the water by a shark spotter. He was dragged to the shore, not breathing and with no pulse. A doctor on the beach began cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) until an ambulance arrived and Deeks was eventually revived in hospital.
Although it is not known how long Deeks was in the water, the local commander of the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), South Africa's lifeboat service, thinks he could have been without a pulse for 40-60 minutes. And yet after a couple of days on a hospital ventilator, he has made an apparently full recovery.
In most cases where the body is starved of oxygen, which is known as hypoxia, brain cells will start to die off fast after four to five minutes. Even in circumstances where CPR is successful, patients would normally suffer some form of brain damage and require therapy for slurred speech, muscular abnormalities or neurological problems.
While such astounding survival stories are not entirely unheard of, they are so rare that they are remembered as individual cases rather than statistics. Craig Lambinon, a spokesman for the NSRI, told reporters that he had heard of a woman in Alaska who had been revived after spending 40 minutes under water, but that Deeks' story was still remarkable. "To recover to that extent that quickly, it's very seldom that happens," he said.
Deeks puts his recovery down to luck, but he must have had more than that on his side in order to survive. Andres Martin, a consultant in emergency medicine at the Royal Free Hospital in London, says, "It is impossible to say that something can't ever happen, but a case like this is incredibly unusual. The brain is very, very sensitive to lack of oxygen. Normally, if the brain is totally starved of oxygen then four minutes later it will die."
One clue might be that Deeks doesn't know what caused him to come close to drowning and no one knows for sure how long he stopped breathing for. "I don't remember anything of the event," he says. "Basically I went out for a swim and the sea was very rough and the tide was very high and I got into difficulties. I must have got pulled over by a wave and got caught in a current." As no one on the beach saw him until he was spotted floating in the sea, there can be no certainty about precisely how long he was without a pulse before being pulled on to the beach and having CPR administered. While the NSRI thinks it might have been 20 minutes or more, it could have been less.
However that's not to say that once Deeks was on the beach and being treated with CPR his problems were over. "What you are trying to do with CPR is to do some of the job of the heart, to get some oxygen to the brain and keep the patient going." says Martin. But he also points out that it is not an especially effective treatment. "If you are doing it properly you can keep a patient going for quite a long time, but the problem is usually that it's not done very well. And even if it is, it's still only just keeping the patient going, it is not doing the full job of their heart." The statistics on CPR bear this out, with only around 5-10% of those who receive it surviving.
However, it saved Deeks. Fred Caygill of the UK's Maritime and Coastguard Agency says, "By doing CPR, I suspect the doctor on the beach saved his life. We don't know how long Deeks was in the water and it could have been a relatively short period of time. But once he was out they had to keep him going until he could be moved to hospital."
If reports that Deeks received CPR for around 40 minutes are correct, that's an unusually long period of time - not least because, as Caygill says, "it's extremely hard work to do". But, he adds, it was appropriate under the circumstances. "Only a doctor can pronounce someone dead, and until that point you will always do your utmost to help someone because saving lives is what we do."
There is a final point that may hold the key to Deeks' survival. Lambinon of the NSRI says, "It is assumed that the cold water plays a part. It would have been relatively cold - 14-15 Celsius." It is true that the temperature can make a difference. "Hypothermia will affect the body and make its processes slow down," says Martin, "which is why most of the stories of survival like this take place in very cold water. But that is usually in instances of very profound hypothermia."
In 1975, Brian Cunningham, 18, of Michigan was pulled out of a frozen pond after 38 minutes. His body was blue, he had no pulse and his breathing had stopped. He was declared dead from drowning. Then he belched. Two hours of CPR and 13 hours of breathing assistance later, Cunningham regained consciousness - and more. Far from being brain-damaged, he finished his college course. Children in particular have a better chance of survival in cold water. In one case Michelle Funk, a two-and-a-half-year-old, survived drowning after being submerged in a cold Utah river for 70 minutes. Whether temperature made a difference in the case of Deeks, though, is open to question; "14 or 15 degrees is quite warm," says Caygill. "That's comparable to the British sea in summertime."
No matter what combination of factors played a part, one thing is without doubt: Deeks survived against quite daunting odds. Whether or not it was an actual miracle, it probably feels like one. As he says, "I feel lucky to be alive. Maybe my time just wasn't up."